The editor: an engaged voyeur

0
447
Dr Nikki Comninos

Early in my career I edited the story of a brother and sister both suffering from the same rare heart condition, ARVD. I worked with the footage for about six months. The sister, the oldest, fell ill first and badly needed a heart transplant. When just months from a possible and terrible end her first potential donor failed, the heart was bruised and she was told to wait for another donor. Her brother, also suffering from the same condition, showed such compassion and understanding, especially for a 15-year-old boy. Everyone was deeply moved. Then she got a donor – her transplant was a success and her recovery, miraculous.

Shortly after this her brother fell ill, as if waiting until after his sister had time to recover. He got very, very sick. Luckily and without a moment to spare he too received a donor, a heart from a middle-aged woman. I was editing the documentary series as it unfolded in real life. Getting footage of the transplants shortly after they were actually done. I shared the experiences of this family’s life. I journeyed with them. Yes, so did the audience, the viewers at home watching episode one, two, three and four. But I saw the raw footage, the 4.5 TBs of raw footage. I developed a soft spot for the brother, and his spirit. But I never met him.

As editors we all know that feeling. When you suddenly hear a familiar laugh, you look over and see someone you know so well. You recognise exactly the inflection of their voice, the way they quickly run their sentences on, or their breathy words. And you realise you know them because you have edited them: an interview perhaps, or watched hours of their birthday party. Watched them, at least, make a cup of tea ‘for cutaways’ and as they spill the milk they awkwardly turn to camera (ruining the shot) and ask ‘you’ll edit this out, right?’ You have heard them say ‘Can I start again?’’ or watched them puzzle as the director stops them and explains to ‘please start your answer with my question’. You have hung out with them in the edit suite trying to slice their rambling sentences, attempting to cut around their discomfort from the camera. You’ve spent time together almost like friends, and like a friend you learned to accept their quirks. You got to know them, but they didn’t get to know you.

The work of an editor is to render a three dimensional person in a two dimensional world. The depth of the craft, in terms of character, lies in piecing together shot scenes to create a whole, consistent and cohesive person. I pawed over the footage and I made him. I made this young man from what I saw in the footage as I got to know him. I made him so an audience could know him too; know him from a crafted series of episodes, which were made from representative scenes that were shot of his lived reality. I made him and knew him but never laid eyes on him in real life. I had met his father, and sister, once in passing when they came to see the director. But in the edit suite, while I was alone, I bonded with a young man that was so positive and graceful, even as he swelled with water retention and as his weak heart pumped feebly in his chest. I saw his father tear up as he said ‘a dad is meant to fix things, that’s what dads are for’. In our story the sister and brother both got hearts. They both lived through this disease. It had been fixed, kind of. Until, after the documentary series was done and had been aired, the young man died. His body had rejected the heart and a subsequent infection was too much for him. I got the news abruptly in an email.

I didn’t know how to reconcile the deep sadness that I felt. Mourning the loss of someone I had never known, but knew so well. I had only the memories of what was captured on screen. The young man I knew existed for me in HD, not in the flesh. My heart was heavy and I wanted to reach out to his family and say ‘I know your son. He was amazing. He was a fighter’. But they didn’t know me and they didn’t know how intimately I knew them. They had real lives and my relationship with them was not real.

This is the strange thing about the ‘invisible art’ of editing. It involves restraint, sometimes in moments of deep connection. This restraint is in relation to the footage, and in the interaction with the director – a delicate balance of helping to create structure and channelling a vision, but not taking over. It is having your own sense of ownership of a project and understanding when to concede. It is collaboration. And in this it is also knowing a character for yourself, quietly, intimately, through the screen and not through real life. It does occupy strange space, being an editor.

My partner is a DOP and in his work he travels and sees it all, makes real connections, meets people, makes Facebook friends with them… We sometimes work on the same projects and reflect on the characters together – his observances from real life interaction and mine from watching the footage over and over again. Sometimes the way a character says a sentence repeats on me like a song stuck in my head, such an obvious trait but not necessarily something that sticks with him. For him, details not caught on camera, like things about their houses and the visceral experience of actually being there linger. The facilities of each craft require and create our different relationships with the characters we work with. I find this interesting, and necessary. A DOP needs to put a character at ease, make them comfortable to share. They need to have a felt relationship. While the editor lives in a hermetic world, ever cautious of staying close to the truth while also aware that a character is being actively constructed. The editor breathes life into a character on screen, and in this you imbue them with part of yourself. An editor needs a certain amount of critical distance that those on set cannot afford to have. It helps the editor ‘kill the babies’ as they say, but it doesn’t stop you from growing attached.

By Dr Nikki Comninos, S.A.G.E.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here